As a wheelchair user 'do you mind me asking?' are five words I dread to hear

Louise Bruton, aka Legless in Dublin, is tired of being defined by the one thing - time and time again

Those five words have the power to drain all personality and erase any past achievements in my life. I can predict what comes next. It’s never,“Do you mind me asking where you bought your jacket?” or “Do you mind me asking if anyone has told you that you look radiant today?” It’s always the same. “Do you mind me asking why you’re in a wheelchair?” And that is all I am reduced to. Everything else is white noise.

Everyone is fairly average until you learn that they know full Beyoncé dance routines, because it takes time to discover the things that make people special. My mundanity is as follows: I’m 28. I love music. I drink gin, I walk the dog, I spend too much time on Twitter and I lip sync along to songs while filming on Photo Booth. This is all fairly humdrum stuff, but once you add the fact that I’m in a wheelchair to the mix, I am suddenly an inspiration.  

People go out of their way to tell me this in the supermarket, the pub and the gym. They’ll stop me and say that it’s wonderful to see me out and about. If my earphones are in, they’ll tap me on the shoulder and joke that I should be given a ticket for speeding. It happens all the time – and I’m reaching breaking point.

At approximately 4’ 2”, I stand out from the crowd. “You probably get this all the time, but do you mind me asking…” They mean well, but my life story isn’t up for grabs just because my history is a little more upfront than yours.

Imagine being defined by one thing time and time again. Say if your father died and everyday you were greeted with, “So, your dad’s dead! What’s that like?” You would seize up and switch to autopilot. The rehearsed reply would be void of any emotion. Every day, you are the new kid in the school faced with the same question. “What’s it like to be you?”

Much like female celebrities, people with disabilities are asked narrow-minded and unoriginal questions by journalists. “What’s it like to be in a wheelchair?” is often the opener and “How’s the love life?” is their way of peering at your sexual habits. We’re all curious about how others get down’n’dirty, but people have a bizarre fascination with how disabled people get it on.

"Men often help me out so they can impress whoever’s looking. That one stings. It stings a lot."

I remember, I once gave a talk in a rehabilitation centre. We were discussing the facilities in accessible hotel rooms and it was pointed out that most accessible rooms come with twin beds. Someone in the crowd joked, “People in wheelchairs can be sluts too!” If we’re not sexual deviants, we’re asexual Smurfs.

I am honest about my disability, but I don’t like it when people jump right in and want to know personal details before even asking my name. In their eyes, if I can make it out of the house, then they have nothing to complain about. The wheelchair means that I become public property. People use me for how they see fit. If I’m not an inspiration, I’m a charity case. I’m someone’s good deed. Men often help me out so they can impress whoever’s looking. That one stings. It stings a lot.

You can sense when someone is about to ask about the chair. As their eyes pore over you, your face heats up and you try to look anywhere but their direction. They can physically stop you from moving by blocking your path or holding your chair until they decide that the conversation is over. “Keep smiling.” Maybe I should be crying. They pat my head like I’m a loyal sheepdog. “Well done. Fair play”. As their words spill out, I’m nothing but spokes and wheels.

I’ve tried to fob people off by saying it’s a long story, hoping they get the hint to jog on, but they look at me earnestly – some people even hold my hand – and say “I’ve got the time”. If I say no, I’m the one with the issue and I morph from being the Inspirational Disabled Girl into the Angry Disabled Girl.

Watch Louise Bruton speaking at TEDxDCU in May 2015

It’s worse on nights out or at music festivals, because people are looser when they drink. Like ghosts and monsters in a house of horrors, people pop out at every turn to poke and prod me. They want to tell me stories about people they know in wheelchairs. I’ve heard about every sort of accident with mobility, limbs, lives and hope lost. I am pulled aside as bands I like are onstage to hear someone else’s heartbreak.

Recently, I pleaded with one woman to stop. She left to have a bitch about me to her mate and stomped back over to ask if she was being insensitive, like I was the one in the wrong. That same night, a man with teary eyes told me about his brother who was in an accident that had left him paralysed. I asked if he could maybe tell me another time. He kept going until his wife, who apologised profusely, dragged him away. He had to tell this story. In circumstances like that, I’m an outlet. I’m free therapy.

My body is no longer mine when this happens. It is either something that people don’t want to have happen to them or it’s a reminder of something terrible that happened to a loved one.

Their words hit me, but I’ve become stoney, so they fall right off. I’ve become colder as a person, because I can’t feel what I’m supposed to feel anytime I hear these stories. I’m always on guard and I’ve got my fake laugh down when I hear a tired joke. Do you know the face you make when a stranger is about to sit next to you on the bus? That’s now my resting face.

When I’m The Girl In The Wheelchair, strangers are just new people with the same old questions. I get to filter out the assholes quicker, for sure, but I’m also shutting down nice people who just have poor timing. Shouting out “Good on ya!” is the equivalent of a dude shouting “Nice tits!” at a girl and expecting her to fall madly in love with him. It’s a compliment in the correct settings, but out on its own and roared prematurely, it’s dangerous. The only response you will get with that tactic is a scowl, an unconvincing smile or a wrath of fury.

A lot of the time, I feel like I am roadblocked by my disability, so it always takes me by surprise when people I’ve known for a while ask me the big question. In this case, I am more than happy to share because it’s an exchange of life stories, experiences and ideas. That’s how we learn about ourselves and grow.

People with visible disabilities are expected to either hide away or lead this tampon commercial kind of life; smile like we know the key to happiness, laugh at empty jokes or jump out of an airplane wearing skintight, white jeans — which is a terrible idea for anyone, no matter what their ability or what time of the month it is. Like the women in tampon ads, why should I have to overachieve as a person to be accepted by you?

Louise Bruton is a writer living and working in Dublin. She tweets at @luberachi and blogs at Legless in Dublin.